There's nothing fun about a nasty family argument, especially when everyone has gathered for Thanksgiving or some other festive event. And research has linked relationship conflict to anger, depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems.
But a new study published Oct. 10 in the journal Human Communication Research points to a surprising upside for verbal conflict. It suggests that people who are exposed to such arguments during childhood may be better able to handle conflict in their romantic relationships when they grow up.
"Children who have experienced intense and frequent exposure to family conflict may adapt to it and evaluate conflict as normal, typical, or expected," study co-author Dr. Lindsey S. Aloia, a lecturer of communication at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, told The Huffington Post in an email. "Because these experiences increase a person's internal ability to adapt to conflict, desensitization is reflected in a diminished physiological reaction to conflict interactions."
For the study, Aloia and Dr. Denise Solomon, a research professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University in University Park, Pa., studied 50 college-aged romantic couples.
First, saliva samples were taken from the study participants to determine their baseline level of the stress hormone cortisol. Then the participants were interviewed about conflict in their relationship and asked to complete questionnaires about their childhood experiences with verbal aggression among members of the family. Finally, the participants were videotaped as they sat together for 10 minutes to discuss a point of conflict between them before follow-up cortisol levels were measured.
What exactly did the study show? The people whose discussions involved more conflict tended to show higher levels of cortisol afterward. But the increase in cortisol levels tended to be smaller in people who indicated that they had been exposed to higher levels of familial verbal aggression in childhood.
The bottom line?
"Conflict experiences can be beneficial, by alleviating tension and avoiding conflict escalation, reducing communication apprehension, and contributing to closeness within the relationship," Aloia said in a written statement, adding in the email that, "Although speculative, we wonder if children benefit most from exposure to family conflicts that illustrate the nonthreatening nature of ethical and responsible disagreement, as well as the dangers of intense conflict."
In other words, maybe don't feel so bad when family fights break out in front of the kids--but try not to let things get out of hand.